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Is there an antonym for the verb besiege? asked for an “opposite” for the word besiege, with answers like occupy, barricade, where the person doing the barricading is inside the barrier, defending his position from outsiders. In a siege, the person doing the barricading is outside, cutting off those inside.

The antonym of besiege is relieve: a siege is lifted.

Barricade is not an antonym of besiege, even though the sense is “opposite”; it could be a synonym of besiege if the siege is realised by a barricade. However occupy isn't a synonym of besiege as the meanings are very different. It's also not the antonym of besiege.

So the relationship between besiege and barricade/occupy is not one of synonyms or antonyms. Is there a -nym word — or indeed any other word — which describes this opposite direction of action (for want of a better term)?

Since I've used the SWR tag, an example sentence would be “Occupy is an _____________ of besiege.


Note: the concept of siege can “work both ways”, with a siege mentality applying to those barricade themselves in. I mention that here only to show that occupy only “works one way”, in a different “direction” to besiege.

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    In view of he fact that so many posts on this site abuse the word antonym, this is an important question, but it may be helpful if you could give more examples of the relationship that the question is about. I fear that, in its present form, the question will lead some of the respondents to focus on the one example given, rather than think of the general concept that it is meant to be an example of.
    – jsw29
    Mar 13 at 15:52
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    Synonym and antonym are grade-school terms. The actual details of semantic opposition are much more complex. The best description of antonymy is Ken Hale's classic paper "A note on a Walbiri tradition of antonymy". It describes a real-life situation where one needs an antonym for everything -- "upside-down Walbiri". Mar 13 at 19:30
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    @JohnLawler, yes, but the OP already knows that; the question is seeking a term that captures one particular kind of relationship, and makes it clear that antonym is not that term. Antonym appears in the question only to provide contrast to what the question is about.
    – jsw29
    Mar 13 at 21:13
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    @Lambie Passive voice is not relevant. And Mafeking was relieved.
    – Andrew Leach
    Mar 19 at 14:39
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    I don't get what you are now doing here. The army besieged the town. So, you think one can say: The army relieved the town?? I don't know what allows you to posit relieve as the antonym of besiege. That's a bit over the top...Not every word has an antonym.
    – Lambie
    Mar 19 at 23:15

3 Answers 3

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Inverse? It’s a bit mathematical but I believe the relation is the same. Going to school is the inverse of coming from school. The opposite of going to school would be not going to school. Inverses have multiplicative identity, which means that if the actions are applied in any order, then you should arrive where you began. Although, there is also additive identity (conjugate) which I don’t believe would make a difference when applied to the English language (because there isn’t a lexical distinction between the additive and multiplicative actions). So conjugate can be used as well.

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Near antonym is a term that can be used, depending on the context. As this term covers the vagueness of the semantic opposition, it can be an apt term for the given situation. Additionally, the word antonym is not meant as an absolute antonym in most cases; as rare a concept it is, where it is possibly only seen in some adjective pairs like true/false with no transitional state in between, unless they are used figuratively or in a technical context perhaps (since I've seen the usage of truer). In addition to that, absolute synonym is also a rare concept and possibly rarer than absolute antonyms in terms of semantic opposition, as seen only in dialectal or terminological pairs of certain nouns used for animals, plants, colors etc. Both concepts can have debatable examples, surely. In the mean time, there are the terms near antonym and near synonym to cover the situations where there is some contrast and similarity in meaning, respectively. Merriam-Webster provides the explanation below for near antonyms:

Near antonyms are words that do not qualify as antonyms under the strict definition used for this thesaurus but that clearly have meanings in marked contrast with the members of a synonym group. For example, afraid is not so exactly opposite to courageous as cowardly is, but afraid and courageous certainly have markedly contrasting meanings and so are considered near antonyms.

In this sense, occupy is not as near opposite to besiege as defend or barricade is (if there are opposing forces; since relieve is used to bring support for a besieged place or to free from siege), but they can have contrasting meanings within the context. Here are the relevant definitions of the verbs in question from OED:

blockade: transitive. Originally Military. To seal off (a place, esp. a port) as an act of war; to subject to a blockade. Now also: to prevent access to (a place) as a civilian protest.

besiege: transitive. To sit down before (a town, castle, etc.) with armed forces in order to capture it; to lay siege to, beleaguer, invest.

occupy: transitive. spec. To take possession of (a place), esp. by force; to take possession and hold of (a building).

barricade: To shut in or defend with or as with a barricade. literal and figurative.

defend: transitive. To resist or ward off an attack on (someone or something); to fight in defence of; to protect from assault, harm, or injury; to keep safe against attack. Also: to resist or ward off (an attack)

Besiege and occupy have the sense or intention of capturing/seizing a place but from opposite viewpoints or positions (although forces can occupy a country also); in contrast, barricade and defend have the sense or intention of defending a place. Blockade has a more neutral sense in this manner. Having said that, occupy and besiege may as well be co-hyponyms where they share the same hypernym (siege possibly or another word that has the sense of capturing/seizing), but it is not definite. One can say that they have no antonymic or synonymic relationship.

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As noted in a comment, synonym and antonym are fairly elementary concepts for lexical semantics - there's quite a bit more. There's hypernym and hyponym, meronym and holonym, there's opposite and negation and counterpart and entailment. It all comes down to semantic relations.

The most general term for this is simply 'related concept'. This is very broad (it includes the 'is-a' and 'has-a' relations). While both those relations allow some synonym-like activity (eg maintaining most meaning when replaced), antonyms and opposites usually relate terms on the same level.

Some concepts have more than one other related concept on equal footing. So 'red' usually isn't considered to have a single opposite, because there's yellow and blue and green and none stand out as an opposite.

Some concepts have just one concept and here the general term is 'counterpart' (though this is not a technical term). For example, wet and dry are counterparts but so are lock and key though the latter are in no way considered antonyms. Another term for such counterparts in general is 'complement'.

Often these counterparts come on a continuum so that 'wet' and 'dry' are on opposite ends but then 'moist' and 'arid' and 'drenched' fall on the scale.

The term 'complement' is sometimes used more specifically as 'negation'. That is, the complement of 'dry' is everything -but- dry, including only the slightest bit of moisture. Which is to say 'not dry' and this is not the same as 'wet' (though 'not dry' certainly include 'wet').

For pairs in opposition (are these called 'opposites'?), there are many possible dimensions and many possibly ways and frankly these can be constructed artificially or by new means. Remember the 'red' example? Some might say that 'red' is on the opposite side from 'green' on one type of color wheel.

If one thinks of words having a meaning described by a collection of binary (or continuous) 'semantic features', then one can then compare two words to see how 'opposite' they are.

Take 'besiege' and 'occupy'. Both have the semantic feature of 'kind of military situation'. Also, they both are somewhat 'static' (a siege just sits there, similarly an occupation. But you could say that to besiege is to 'surround a place and stop things going in and out' and 'occupy' is to 'invade (or be in) a space and let things continue' (yes this is arguable). But with these features, the contrast is not negative or on the other end of a scale but more like key and hole. I would label the relation between these two as a complement. Or to fill in the blank (or really reword appropriately):

“'To occupy' and 'to besiege' are complements of each other”

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